Kevin Keegan says his biggest challenge is to convince supporters that Manchester City can finish in the Premiership's top eight this season, or even in Europe. Well, his job is harder this morning.
Given the chance to make ground on other teams with a Uefa Cup place in their sights, they blew it yesterday when they were beaten by Tottenham Hotspur, who also underperform so regularly they could be the City of the south. It was no fluke either because Robbie Keane squandered a hat-trick of opportunities.
With Keane in one of his more profligate moods, it was left to his fellow striker, Frédéric Kanouté, to get his fifth goal of the season and earn Spurs a second successive away victory in the Premiership for the first time in a campaign since George Graham was the manager. As for City, they have won only two of their last nine matches and their season could go either way. Plus ça change, as they will not be saying in Manchester.
The twin edges of their predicament was embodied by Nicolas Anelka, who was booed by supporters when his name was announced before the kick-off for saying the unthinkable - City are not a big club - yet was applauded as a potential saviour by the same people when he came on as a substitute. Yes, the home performance was that bad.
"The longer the game went on the more we passed with no real purpose and in the end Spurs deserved to win," Keegan said. "We weren't fluent. We certainly weren't inventive and we didn't look to have a goal in us today." Apart from that, they were fine.
Keegan preferred the more prosaic (not to mention loyal) Jon Macken to Anelka and had he had the Frenchman's pace he might have ended up burying the ball in the net instead of nose-diving into the the floor before the game was a minute old. Macken claimed a penalty but Ledley King appeared to have got a touch on the ball before making contact with the player.
After such an eventful start, you expected City to dominate; instead Tottenham could have gone in at the interval 2-0 ahead. Their first real chance came after 24 minutes when Rohan Ricketts cut in from the left in a manner Cliff Jones would have been proud of, leaving Danny Mills and Paul Bosvelt in his wake. Having done the hard part, however, his shot was timid and it bobbled wide of the far post.
The ending had failed to do justice to the start in that move and much the same could be said of Tottenham's next chance 14 minutes later. A glorious pass from Pedro Mendes allowed Keane to pit his speed against the lumbering Richard Dunne, a contest that was always going to have only one winner. His first touch teed him up but, as David James advanced menacingly, the Republic of Ireland striker flicked his shot the wrong side of the post.
This had suggested Tottenham's counter-attacks would be decisive eventually and so it proved after 57 minutes. Michael Brown, a former City player, was the beneficiary when yet another home move ground to a halt and his 40-yard ball could hardly have been better. City's players looked to the linesman to give them a reprieve via an offside flag but, when that was not forthcoming, Kanouté was able to get goal-side of Dunne with a touch with his thigh. Even then he was hardly in the perfect position, just inside the penalty area on the left, yet his shot had the precision of a sniper and it rocketed into the top corner. Normally the goalkeeper is to blame when he is beaten at his near post; on this occasion James did not have a hope of saving it.
City brought on Anelka and the younger Wright-Phillips, Bradley, but rather than a barnstorming finish from the home team it was Spurs who should have added to their score. Keane went round James after 68 minutes, but found his route to goal barred by Sylvain Distin, and 10 minutes later Brown found the Republic of Ireland striker with a lovely pass from the right. Unsurprisingly, he knocked the ball over.
For Keegan, those misses were a blessing. "We had four or five players under par and in the Premiership most weeks you are going to get what we got today," he said. "Absolutely nothing."